Marie Labarelle’s slow textiles
The oneiric charm of Marie Labarelle sleek and chic collections attracts customers looking for authenticity, and anyone wishing to escape the uniformity of mass-produced garments. A graduate architect turned fashion designer, Labarelle approaches clothing like a vacant space waiting to be inhabited, a safe haven where the body can move freely and simply, be. The French designer's fascination with volumes is fueled by her love for rare fabrics, a passion she pursues when traveling in Asia and Europe. Each garment is carefully cut in a single piece of cloth, bringing a sense of exquisite slowness and meditative quality to her stylish collections. Labarelle is strongly committed to producing sustainable and durable textiles. She has narrowed the focus of her brand by working exclusively with high quality woven textiles, selecting virtuous production environments and developing the growing bond she has established with her customers.
Her first childhood memories are all related to textiles, revealing how her primary passion irresistibly caught up with her. She grew up in the Alsace region and earned a Master’s Degree in Architecture in Strasbourg. “My studies paved the way for an artistic career. I learned to develop creative projects and to keep an open mind; it led me straight to fashion design.” As a young student, she could not find a dress that truly suited her so she began to design for herself. “I was a fourth-year student full of confidence when I bought my first sewing machine to make my own clothes. In architecture we deal with any kind of material, there's literally no limit, so working with fabric did not seem so odd. My training had prepared me for the design and crafts sectors.” At the time, she was studying in Rotterdam and making frequent trips to Antwerp, the city of fashion that saw the rise of the Antwerp Six, the avant-garde fashion collective founded by designers such as Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs. “When I visited the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp, I came to understand they approached fashion design like we approached architecture.” After graduating in 2001, she went to work at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. It was a golden opportunity to explore contemporary while making a living art and pursuing her fashion dream. After selling her first creations in 2002 she embraced the fast pace of the fashion industry, promoting her collections at various fashion trade shows. She managed to attend an evening class to learn pattern making and draping. “Designing and making clothes came naturally to me. My first pieces may have not been perfect, but all my basic essentials were already there. I'm fundamentally self-taught and could never followed any pre-existing clothes patterns. I’d rather develop my own ideas. When I designed my first dress in 2003 I broke all the rules by moving the seams toward the front and back of the piece. It was all very instinctive.”
Labarelle launched her label in 2005, gradually expanding her small independent business by remaining true to her own vision, “I learned to work with space and volumes, these are my basics. I don’t believe the body should feel trapped in clothes; it needs room. I work on my silhouette like an architect, looking at it in a 360-degree way. Then I imagine how movement would bring life to the whole structure. I’m also driven by the fact that I was never fully satisfied with the clothes I saw in retail stores, so in the end I had to develop my personal aesthetic.”
Looking back now, Labarelle acknowledges her calling was to work with fabric and transform raw materials into elegant clothing. Her creations were soon influenced by her collaboration with dancers. She explored the freedom of the body and the use of clothing to conceal or reveal the body: “Clothes are a language. I don’t follow any particular dogma, I just believe in diversity. Fashion designers should be more experimental. Ultimately it would enrich the vocabulary of fashion and they would offer a wider choice of clothing to their customers.” Instead of sketching ideas, she works out her pattern by draping the entire piece of textile on a dummy, creating volume through pleats. Over time, she has turned to rare and high-end fabrics, gradually refining her “textile consciousness”. She starts every collection by asking herself “what do I want to wear?” and goes on to explain, “I never had a standard marketing strategy. I feel lucky that my personal approach to fashion is appealing to so many women. I still enjoy meeting and advising the customers who come to my store. I need to know how they feel about my clothes”. Avoiding standard fashion shows, the designer hires artists and dancers to present her collections. “Professional dancers are movement experts and you can learn a lot by watching a dance performance. In 2009, I was invited to the Festival Budaya Prancis in Jakarta after one of my fashion show performances.”
Labarelle researched Indonesian textiles and was struck by the sheer beauty of batik artistry. It was a turning point in her life. “While traveling in Indonesia I came to understand that textiles could just be textiles, without being garments. I was touched by the richness of this traditional cultural heritage and I could feel how ancient craftsmanship was deeply rooted in Indonesian lifestyle. Exploring batik art helped me to be more focused on essentials, which was quite challenging too. I designed a collection using single pieces of fabrics the size of sarongs (110x225cm), creating little or no fabric waste. It was a brand new approach to design that brought many technical difficulties. I didn’t think I would do it again but the zero-waste goal has become part of my work philosophy. I explore volumes and shapes differently, still playing intuitively with seam placements. It’s an evolving and maturing process. Now, all my patterns must fit within a single piece of fabric. Batik sarongs helped me to understand fabric was a precious commodity and had to be treated with respect. The creative process begins with the fabric. I feel its weight then I watch how it drapes, folds and pleats. Natural fiber fabrics are at the core of my work.”
She divides her time between designing her collections and researching fine and rare textiles in Asia. She travels to Yogyakarta in Indonesia twice a year where she can produce her colorful Batik collections. A skilled craftsman draws her exclusive motifs on a cotton or silk cloth, using a pencil. The wax is applied on the pattern with a copper stamp (batik cap) or it’s hand-drawn with the small copper cup called “canting” (batik tulis). The cloth is dipped in a first dye bath then the wax is scraped or boiled off in a large caldron. The process of waxing and dyeing must be repeated several times to achieve elaborate and colorful designs. Labarelle has developed a long-term partnership with the Batik Winotosastro workshop and the manager Bu Hani had Labarelle’s exclusive contemporary designs made into copper stamps. “I’ve created an infinite number of motifs and color combinations. Batik is hand-made so the result is never the same twice. By creating batik sarongs I can make unique and exclusive pieces in every collection”.
Labarelle recently learned to use vegetable dyes, facing a new technical challenge, as batik dyeing requires cold-water dyes to prevent the wax from melting. “Natural dyes make much more vibrant colors. I clearly saw that when I was traveling in Korea and scouring traditional markets for hand processed textiles. I found a roll of mud silk fabric, a quite rare and very inspirational piece”. The use of natural dyes echoes her recent eco-friendly-no-waste approach to designing and sourcing, and mirrors her long maturing idea of the landscape woman: “Wearing naturally dyed clothes is like carrying a tiny piece of earth with you, it’s a way to interact with the world.”
She goes on to explain the concept of the landscape woman, “The idea was mainly inspired by Jukurrpa, the Aboriginal Dreaming stories,” she said. “It’s an all-embracing concept that is familiar to me because I approach fashion design with the eye of an architect. It’s a creative vantage point leading to an imaginary world where the body becomes the ground of a narrative. It conveys sustainability issues and keeps us in touch with the farmers, spinners, dyers and weavers who strive to produce beautiful natural textiles, in the world’s most remote places”.
For more information visit www.marie-labarelle.com.